15: Episode 15 – Incorporating chickens

Chickens are an integral part of almost every self sufficiency system. Here I talk a little about breeds, fencing, breeding, feed and other points regarding keeping hens.

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Incorporating Chickens

Even if you are remotely interested in self-sufficiency, you absolutely have to get some chickens. They have to be a part of your self-sufficiency plan. They do so much work and to try
and set up any kind of self-sufficient system where you want to work towards being 100% food self-reliant, then chickens are just an absolute no-brainer. They’re such an integral part of what we do here on my farm and I’m going to talk to you today about why you should have them. I’m also going to discuss a few more basic introductory things that you need to know about choosing your chickens, how you look after them, what they’re going to do for you and why you really do need to consider getting them if you haven’t already.

How To Incorporate Chickens in your Homestead

Deciding Type of Chickens

First of all, you need to decide on which chickens you are going to get. To start out at least, you should focus on egg-laying breeds now. Strictly speaking, there are three different types of chicken: Egg-laying chickens, meat birds and dual-purpose birds, which do both but they don’t do either quite as well as the dedicated birds would. I’m going to start talking about those three types of birds but there is a fourth type and they are more ornamental ones.

We have quite a selection here on the homestead. We’ve got lots of egg-laying birds. We don’t have any specific meat breeds. We get our chicken meat as a byproduct of what else we’re doing here. We have aesthetic birds as the fourth type which we have here as a small flock of predominantly Pekin Bantams, which do lay eggs. We are happy with the number of eggs they produce but they are more like our pets. They also command quite a decent price so you can breed your chickens and sell the young chickens of whatever breed you have. So that’s just another way that they can pay for themselves.

Egg Laying Birds

I’m going to start by talking about egg-laying birds and the main breed to promote from my point of view are ISA Browns. The breed basically makes up the whole of the battery farming sector of our farms. They don’t have a particularly nice life when they are barn birds. So I do want to encourage you to look into saving battery hens. ISA Brown is just a great bird. They’re so well-behaved and we find them so easy to look after. We’ve got over a hundred here and it’s the bird that we have the most of. Over 50% of our flock are ex-battery hens. Ex-battery hens will be put into work at a very young age. They start laying eggs when they’re very young and they lay eggs every day at a ridiculous rate. Then they start to drop off when they’re just a year and a half old. So after a year and a half of living in not very good conditions there, they are no longer deemed worthy and they go off to slaughter and end up in the animal feed (dog food) and things like that. At that point, even though under the very tight margins of a battery farming set up, they’re not viable. They are very much backyard hens.

So we get most of our birds as ex-battery hens. They spend that period of their lives churning out eggs at a ridiculous rate under not very good conditions, and we give them a beautiful retirement. We give them lots of open space and grass. You can consider getting them because it’s a nice way of increasing the well-being of that animal’s life, that’s already served humanity in such an abhorrent way. We also buy some ISA Browns which are of the same breed but we buy them at point of lay, which means they’re just about to start laying. So we also get that extra bit of time when they’re at their highest point of production. But again, we don’t try to make any of the situations that they live in, out of nature. These are the egg-laying breeds that I personally use but there are also some different varieties if you want to go down that road, for example, Australorps, Rhode Island Reds and Leghorn are well-known egg-laying breeds.

Meat Birds

Any bird that is raised for meat can be referred to as a broiler. But the broilers that are used in the factory farming process are super inbred to a point where they don’t even function as animals anymore. They’re bred to put on weight at such a rate that their legs can’t even support their weight and it really is quite a disgusting state of affairs. There are some less inbred versions of birds that you can breed. If you want to breed something specifically to get them to a nice size fairly quickly, then Jersey Giant and the Orpington are great options. Orpingtons are nice birds because they’re dual-purpose birds. The only downside is they don’t lay as many eggs as your egg breeding hens and also they take a little bit longer to get to their full size. But if your main goal is to have a dual purpose bird and maintain the welfare of the animal, then all Orpingtons are a great variety to go for.

Breeding Chickens

When you’ve got a flock of birds, you’ll have a decision to make and that is whether you’re going to keep a cock bird. My advice is that you do and the main reason for this is breeding. So I keep all of our hens with at least one cock bird. You only need one cock bird / 12 hens or more and they will keep all of those eggs fertile. then you can raise your own chicks, which you can do either in an incubator or you can let nature take its course and allow your hands to sit on those eggs and raise them.

Now, ISA Browns don’t tend to go broody and sit on their eggs because they’ve had that bred out of them. It’s not a useful thing for a battery farmer to have to deal with a lot of broody hens that aren’t laying anymore. But if you’ve got a mixture of birds, then you almost certainly will have some broody birds every Spring and quite often, other times of the year as well. Our Pekins are well-known as being really good broody hens. So when one of our Pekins decides that she’s going to sit on some eggs, we make sure that she’s got some of our ISA brown eggs under her and she’s going to hatch our next round of egg-laying birds, which is, a great way of keeping that cycle of energy. We don’t have to go out and buy more birds.

Now, of course, only the females will lay your eggs. So a byproduct of your own breeding system is you’re going to have cock birds that you don’t want. Beyond the few cock birds that you will want for breeding, every other bird is just going to be hungry mouths to feed. It doesn’t actually give you much back. We allow them to grow to maturity, have a great life and then they become meat birds. So that’s how we produce our meat which is a byproduct of our egg-laying birds.

How To Breed Your Birds

I’m going to talk more about how you breed your birds and how you use an incubator. So breeding your own hens, if you’ve got a broody hen, is that you’ll have a hen that decides she’s not getting up anytime soon. She’s literally going to sit in the nesting box for days on end.
She will just come out for the drink and a quick bite of food and then straight back. It’s because she’s decided she’s going to sit on these eggs and hatch them. In this period, they will readily accept extra eggs. So you can either swap the eggs that are under her for the egg you want to be hatched or you can just add a few to hatch the ones that are already under her. It’s quite important that you separate her into another little run so that other hens can’t continually lay eggs that she might try to adopt and you’ll lose track of which ones were she supposed to sit on. Eventually, she’ll have too many that she can’t keep them warm and you’ll have a high failure rate. Another way is to use an electric incubator. We personally use the broody hen method because it’s natural and free. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using the incubator method. The only downside of the incubator method, apart from the electric costs, is that you also don’t end up with a mother hen who can teach chicks how to eat, how to forage etc.

Feeding Your Birds

When you’ve got your baby hens, you can either buy a product called chick crumb, which is basically like chicken feed pellet but a much smaller version for them and it’s got all the extra nutrients the chicks need. What we feed ours are mashed up boiled eggs mixed with a bit of bread and it’s got everything they need along with a bit of foraging that their mum will take care of for you. So that’s how we feed our chicks.

Feeding your birds in general across the board is dependent largely on the size area you’re able to give them. The bigger the area you’re going to give them, the less you’re going to need to find a feed for them. That is because they are great forages. They will eat slugs, bugs and worms and also peck at the grass and other plants, in my experience. You can check online for lists of plants that are poisonous to your hens. They’re also great at eating scraps from the kitchen. So with a bit of thought and enough space, you can get your food costs down to 0. Corn and mealworms also make a great treat for them. If you’ve got some chickens that you’re struggling to tame or you’re struggling to get to go away at night, teaching them that a few mealworms will be put in the run before you shut them away will definitely do the job. Like all animals, they will need access to lots of fresh, clean water.

If you’re going to feed your chicks in a feeder, I strongly recommend that you use a treadle feeder. They do have a cost. It is a big box that stores the food in and it’s a vermin-proof box. To access the feed, the chickens stand on a little trap door that opens up where the feed is and they’re really effective and they keep your feed costs down primarily because there are no rats and mice that you’re feeding.

How To Keep Your Birds Safe

The next thing you’ll want to think about is keeping your bird safe. When we think of free-ranging birds, we imagine they’ve got access to acres of land and everybody’s having a grand time. But unfortunately, that’s not the reality. If you were to truly free-range your birds and if I was to allow my chickens access to our whole garden, they would get picked off by the fox in short order. They would not last a month. So we do free-range our birds but we do it an electric fence. We’ve got an electric fence that we move. They’ve got access to grass all the time and they’ve got lots of space.

Unfortunately, the idea of actually free-ranging a bird doesn’t really work if you also want to keep them alive. Free-ranging is important for keeping the costs down because the more you give them access to land, the more they can feed themselves. The hens that we’ve got outside our kitchen have got access to probably half an acre of fenced-off garden and dogs are also free-ranging in so they keep our animals safe in that space. The hens that are a bit further out are mainly egg layers. They’re not in that space with the dogs so there’s nothing there to deter the fox and the badger. Within that electric fencing, we have another run within that’s got six-foot harris fencing all the way around it. We’ve also got a strip of the electric fence about 8 inches off the ground all the way around as well to stop things digging under it. So you do need to think about the safety of your birds.

Another way a lot of people do it is they keep them in a hutch overnight and then they let them out onto their lawn in the day. The fox is the biggest predator here in the UK so you need to keep them safe from whatever predators live in your area. Something that can help with that is an automatic door. We’ve got two automatic doors on our runs out in the field where the electric fence is. Once our hens are away at night, the door comes down automatically. It’s on a solar sensor and that’s just that extra layer of security for our hens. Once you’ve got your fencing in place if you’ve got a normal four-foot fence or something of that nature, your chickens will, depending on your breed, learn to jump up on it and get to wherever they want to get. So you can clip their wings. It’s really simple, you just extend their wing out and you take care not to actually damage the wing itself, just cut the flight feathers back with a pair of scissors. We normally just do one wing and that stops them from being able to fly where we don’t want them. It doesn’t hurt them any more because it’s like cutting your grown out fingernails.

Another thing is that you might want to worm your chickens. It really does depend on your stocking levels and whether you’re able to change the ground because the worms live in their faeces If you’re moving the hens to a different plot every six weeks, letting that ground recover and using good animal husbandry, then you probably won’t need to. We’ve also got some wormwood bushes that I’ve transplanted into all the areas that we put the chickens and they can also self medicate from that bush.

Final Thoughts

So that’s just about everything I’ve got to say about raising chickens. Hopefully, if you don’t have any already, I’ve inspired you to consider getting some. Even though the main purpose of having them is to feed into what we’re trying to achieve and being food secure, they also make great pets. They’ve got great characters and I’m sure if you get them you won’t regret it.